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America reaches milestone with COVID-19 vaccine now widely available to those who want it, but hesitancy still casts a shadow

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As of Monday, COVID-19 vaccines become available to every American over 16 who wants a shot, but a panel of experts convened by USA TODAY remains deeply concerned about the people who say the vaccine isn’t needed.

Being anxious about getting a shot is normal, expected and can be resolved with education and role models, several panelists said.

“People who have questions deserve to have those questions answered. That’s fair and that’s on us,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group.

What he and others worry about are those who deny the importance of vaccination and try to convince others to forgo it, too.

Vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have been shown to be incredibly effective – preventing upwards of 90% of infections, both in clinical trials and real-word studies. And they’ve been shown to be safe, delivered to more than 125 million Americans so far.

“You would have trouble finding a better vaccine,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

Once a month for nearly a year, USA TODAY has been examining the development and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines with an expert panel whose specialties range from virology to logistics.

We asked them to create an imaginary clock, starting at midnight, when the virus first came to public attention and ending at noon when anyone who wanted a shot could get one.

Last June, the first month of our coverage, panelists put the time at 4 a.m., with estimates advancing by a full hour most months.

Although it’s still a challenge to work the computerized registration system in many states, theoretically high noon has now been reached, with vaccines available to most  everyone. 

We had expected to roll the clock back at least once, as vaccine development and rollout stumbled. But while it took 11 months to advance 8 hours we never did, a testament to the massive resources devoted to creating the vaccines in record time.

This month, the message from the 15 panelists was clear: vaccines are safe, effective and a triumph of science – not to mention essential for ending the pandemic and restoring the U.S. economy. The big challenge that remains is getting enough people to take them.

COVID-19 has so far claimed more than 565,000 American lives and sickened millions more, yet unsupported fears remain among too many Americans about the tiny safety risk that comes with all vaccines.

“The threat is right in front of our noses and we look past it to worry about an overblown and theoretical risk that hasn’t been supported after tens of millions of vaccinations,” said Dr. Otto Yang, an infectious disease specialist at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

In 2018, vaccine hesitancy was listed as one of the Top 10 global health threats by the World Health Organization.

Yet people still seem to think pathogens aren’t a problem unless they’re personally affected.

“I hear people say things like, ‘We didn’t take it seriously until my brother died of it and after seeing what he went through, then we changed our mind,'” Poland said. “That means a whole lot of people have to die to convince people.”

Still, some panelists expressed optimism that most can be convinced to get vaccinated, to protect themselves and others.

“I am amazed by how effective these vaccines are in real world studies,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, “and am over the moon that we are so lucky to have these vaccines.”

“Nothing succeeds like success,” added Dr. Kelly Moore, deputy director of the non-profit Immunization Action Coalition.

What victory looks like

Despite recent hitches, the vaccine development and rollout have been incredible accomplishments.

The first vaccines were developed and completed large clinical trials less than a year after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified. Massive amounts of federal funding under the Trump administration assured that large-scale manufacturing wouldn’t lag too far behind.

Under the Biden administration, distribution of the vaccines has been stepped up substantially, along with production, and now more than 3 million Americans – roughly 1% of the total population – get vaccinated every day.

The success so far increases the stakes for getting the vast majority of the population vaccinated, Moore said.

“If we fail at that, it’s a failure of will rather than a failure of science,” she said. “And we will have no one to blame for but ourselves.”

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The biggest setbacks in vaccinations have come in recent weeks, with safety and production issues raised by both the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was authorized for use in the U.S. on Feb. 27, and the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which still hasn’t applied for authorization here, but is being used around the world. 

Still, because the Biden administration bought enough of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, supply by midsummer should cover every American adult who wants a shot, with more remaining for younger teens and children, who aren’t yet eligible. 

And even if J&J and AstraZeneca are never used here, a fifth vaccine, from Novavax, may yet win authorization.

Vaccines won’t be the total solution – behaviors like mask-wearing and avoiding crowds also matter, Yang said. Too often during the pandemic, leaders have stepped back from these measures just when they should have encouraged people to keep going.

“As soon as numbers fall, they start relaxing containment measures,” Yang said, comparing it to firefighters leaving the scene of a fire as soon as they begin to gain control. “When the flames are low, that is the time to redouble and intensify efforts, because that is when you have a chance to put out the fire.”

What still needs to happen to get Americans vaccinated?

Because it’s proven too hard to control the virus with behaviors, vaccines have become the only way to stop this seemingly endless crisis, panelists said.

“Solving for vaccine hesitancy will be absolutely critical to ending this pandemic and revitalizing local economies across the country,” said Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a trade group. 

They offered some creative ideas for encouraging more people to get vaccinated.

Pamela Bjorkman, a structural biologist at the California Institute of Technology, harkened back to the days of the polio vaccine rollout, when role models were publicly vaccinated to encourage people to get their shots. 

“The Elvis effect,” as she called it, “resulted in a lot more people getting poliovirus vaccinations.” Elvis Presley famously got the polio vaccine on television before performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956.

“We need a series of “Elvis’s” to promote vaccination for COVID-19 protection,” Bjorkman said.

University of Missouri law professor Sam Halabi put would like to see more well-known figures, such as L.A. Laker LeBron James, get publicly vaccinated.

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and their first ladies all have been part of a television advertising campaign to get vaccinated. Former President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump were also vaccinated, but less publicly.

Communications expert Peter Pitts sees a role for each vaccinated person to “sell” the idea of vaccination to others.

“While targeted public relations and advertising campaigns are important, what will really move the needle (both literally and figuratively) are neighbors talking with friends, neighbors and relatives about their positive experiences and the feeling of freedom” after vaccination, said Pitts, president and co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

“Peer pressure is a potent tool in the battle against vaccine skepticism,” he added.

Yang agreed that personal connections will be key, because too few Americans put their trust anymore in experts or the media. 

“They need to hear the information from someone they personally know and believe,” Yang said. “Politics and disinformation have so polluted the public psyche that many people just won’t believe anything from even the most reputable sources, or worse yet, believe disinformation based on their political alignment.”

People also need to be reminded when they get vaccinated they are helping not just themselves, but people who can’t get full protection because they’re immunocompromised, have allergies to the shots or are particularly frail, Offit said. 

He recalled a time when California lawmakers were trying to decide whether to allow parents to exempt their kids from routine childhood vaccinations. The tide turned in favor of vaccination when a 5-year-old boy named Luke, who couldn’t get shots because he was being treated for leukemia, got up in front of the state legislature.

Standing on a stool to reach the microphone, “He said, what about me? I depend on you to protect me,” Offit remembered.

What may finally convince some people to get the shots is seeing what unfolds over time, said Vivian Riefberg, professor of practice at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

“Ultimately, the real carrot is watching vaccinated people get back to their normal lives over time,” she said, “and the real stick might unfortunately be with continued sickness and unnecessary death.”

Surprises, both good and bad

For our final question to panelists, we asked what had surprised them the most about the vaccine development and distribution.

Most cited the speed by which incredibly effective vaccines have been made widely available.

“I am astonished, but not surprised, by the global scientific brilliance and collaborative spirit that has produced a profusion of useful vaccines,” said Arti Rai, law professor and health law expert at Duke University Law School. “Most surprising to me has been the ability of the U.S. public health care system, challenged as it is in so many ways, to do a reasonable job on the delivery end.”  

“I am amazed to see how effective the vaccine has been in preventing hospitalization and death,” agreed Prakash Nagarkatti, vice president for research at the University of South Carolina. 

“Without the vaccines we would be thinking not just about wave four but also waves five, six, etc., right now,” Riefberg added.

She praised the public-private collaboration that got the vaccines produced in record time, as well as the effective use of government funding to support vaccine development and rescue the economy.

“Imagine if there were no vaccines and outright economic collapse,” she said, “this time last year that was a distinct possibility.”

On the negative side of the ledger, several panelists expressed dismay about the fragmentation of the health care system, particularly under the Trump administration, with every state operating on its own and little direction coming from Washington.

“I was surprised how ill-prepared we were for this in general,” said Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Many lives could have been saved if we had responded properly from the beginning.”

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor and infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, said he was discouraged that it took so long to roll out vaccines at the local level. “Also, how much variation in vaccination prioritization occurred among the states,” he said.

That slow start turned into a break-neck pace, and will hopefully serve as a role model for fixing other problems, they said.

“It creates confidence in government capacity to deliver at scale quickly,” said Prashant Yadav, a medical supply chain expert and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “Let’s hope this confidence is contagious to other fields – if we have been able to do it public health can we also do it for health care more comprehensively.”

Several panelists pointed out that the virus highlighted serious challenges in America’s health care system and the need to prioritize global health.

“While this is not a surprise, the pandemic has laid bare the stark inequities in health care/society that need to be addressed,” Riefberg said.

She and others also said they were shocked by the widespread rejection of science and the politicization of basic health measures like mask-wearing, vaccines and vaccine passports to prove inoculation.

Riefberg said she’s also disappointed that at this point in the pandemic, there still aren’t many good treatments to fight COVID-19. “After a year and about 1,000 clinical trials, all we have is remdesivir (maybe), monoclonal antibodies (less effective by the day due to variants), and steroids,” she said. 

But panelists said their concerns couldn’t dim their overall enthusiasm about the vaccines and the potential they have to make a real difference in the pandemic – saving lives and allowing people to bounce back from the last, incredibly difficult year

“The resiliency of the average American is astounding,” Pitts said.  

How we did it 

USA TODAY asked scientists, researchers and other experts how far they think the vaccine development effort has progressed since Jan. 1, when the virus was first recognized. Fifteen responded this month. We are grateful for the time they have devoted to this project. 

This month’s panelists 

Pamela Bjorkman, structural biologist at the California Institute of Technology

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco

Sam Halabi, professor of law, University of Missouri; scholar at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University 

Florian Krammer, virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of Biotechnology Innovation Organization

Dr. Kelly Moore, deputy director of the non-profit Immunization Action Coalition; former member of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices

Prakash Nagarkatti, immunologist and vice president for research, University of South Carolina 

Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of Vaccinology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

Peter Pitts, president and co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, and a former FDA Associate Commissioner for External Relations

Dr. Gregory Poland, director, Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, and editor-in-chief, Vaccine

Arti Rai, law professor and health law expert at Duke University Law School

Vivian Riefberg, professor of practice at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, director emeritus and senior advisor with McKinsey & Company, and a board member of Johns Hopkins Medicine, PBS, and Signify Health, a healthcare platform company working to transform how care is paid for and delivered at home. 

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor and infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

Prashant Yadav, senior fellow, Center for Global Development, medical supply chain expert.

Dr. Otto Yang, professor of medicine and associate chief of infectious disease at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Contact Karen Weintraub at [email protected] and Elizabeth Weise at [email protected]

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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